Aaron Vanatta likely never thought he would be recognized along with members of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But a week ago, Vanatta, as the school resource officer for Keystone Oaks School District in Allegheny County, took the stage along with those officers and officers from six other departments to accept the Model Agency Award from the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Also recognized were officers from Scott and Collier townships for their work with Chartiers Valley School District. Vanatta was one of the instructors who trained those officers.
The presentation, which recognizes agencies that exemplify the organization’s concept combining law enforcement, teaching and informal counseling in their training, policies and standards, was made during the association’s annual conference in La Quinta, Calif.
Vanatta, of Taylorstown, started working as a police officer for Keystone Oaks in 2009 after working as the Washington County juvenile probation officer assigned to McGuffey High/Middle School. He also works part time in South Strabane Township.
“When I was at McGuffey, I worked closely with the school police officer,” Vanatta said. “So when I learned about the job at Keystone Oaks, I applied. I have found it to be rewarding.”
The district just received approval from the state and Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to establish Keystone Oaks School police. Vanatta guided the program from its beginning to the national recognition.
“One of the philosophies of school police is bridging the gap between students and police,” Vanatta said. “Too often, their encounters have not been positive. Perhaps police were called to their home for a bad situation like their parents fighting.”
Vanatta spends a lot of time with the students.
“I eat lunch with them, see them in the halls,” Vanatta said. “I go to the athletic events, musicals and other events.
“The kids begin to feel more comfortable around an officer. I have built a rapport. They feel they can come to me for help or with information.”
Vanatta has also been a guest speaker in classrooms, discussing safety tips as well as answering questions about the criminal justice system. He also implemented a Peer Jury program. The jurors hear cases at least once a month.
The jurors go through training and are required to take an oath of confidentiality. After hearing facts of an incident, generally committed by a first-time offender, the jurors come up with a length of a contract to make the violator realize responsibility must be taken for their actions and restore what was tarnished or damaged. They can also let the student off with a warning or reprimand. If the violator does not meet terms of the contract, the matter is referred back to the school principal and police officer.
As a school police officer, Vanatta does investigate crimes and make arrests when appropriate. He also serves as liaison with the municipal police departments in the district.
Vanatta also works with the staff on how to respond during an enhanced lockdown. He also has taught them how to identify behavioral indicators of violent offenders and how to react.
Vanatta also plans to work with the teachers and staff at the Trinity Area School District next month on how to react if there is a gunman in the schools. He said many Washington County school districts have school resource officers or police officers from local departments assigned to the schools, particularly in the wake of the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.